COLUMBUS — A trio of firsts with second-year Washington coach Mike Hopkins, as recalled by senior guard David Crisp this week:
The first time the two met in person: “It was the news conference,” introducing Hopkins as the Huskies’ new coach, replacing Lorenzo Romar, in March 2017. “I come in the gym and he’s at the top of the stadium in a full suit. He goes, ‘Is that D.C.?!’ and sprints down the stairs in a full suit, picks me up in a hug and everything. I was like, man, this dude’s crazy.”
The first time Hopkins led a team meeting: “Coach Romar didn’t say one cuss word. He’s a good Christian man. Always kept his cool, always. Our first meeting with Coach Hop, he just lights off a firecracker. Every other word was a cuss. He was like, The losing? It stops now. It was funny at first, but you could see he was about business.”
The first time Hopkins led the Huskies in workouts: “He’s in there with us doing drills, getting separation, with [former Washington forward] Carlos Johnson. He just got ran over and breaks his nose. I didn’t see it but they said he was bleeding. The next day, he’s got purple [bruising] on his eyes.”
Or as senior guard Matisse Thybulle puts it: “In the kindest way possible, the man is crazy. He’s got enough energy for like 10 people, all bottled up into one little human.”
For all the reasons that Washington is one of college basketball’s last 32 teams standing—in its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011—the ones to which all roads lead is the frenzied 49-year-old pushing up his sleeves and living and dying by every bucket as he paces the sideline. Yes, the Huskies’ rotation features at least two future pros and two other top-100 recruits. And yes, their roster’s long athletes plug in almost perfectly to the 2-3 zone that has turned opponents over at the fourth-highest rate nationally, including eighth-seeded Utah State 21 times on Friday. But it was Hopkins who imported that zone from some 2,700 miles west after more than two decades of apprenticeship, and it was the adrenaline spigot of a man who dropped to the ground for a round of push-ups while interviewing for his job that convinced the Huskies’ talented core to not only buy into his system but first to stay in Seattle.
“He’s like one of the players, really,” explains sophomore Jaylen Nowell, the Pac-12 Player of the Year. “When [Hopkins] says he’s a player’s coach, he’s really a player’s coach.”
Crisp says he first sensed Hopkins’s vivid personality in their initial phone conversation, which came within an hour of Washington announcing the coach’s hiring. Then a rising junior, Crisp was enticed by both the coach’s buoyancy and backstory. The scrawny SoCal native walked onto Syracuse’s basketball team in 1989 and earned the nickname “The Human Bruise” for the beating he willfully took in each Orange practice, from his teammates’ physicality and his own reckless, all-out playing style. He eventually scrapped his way into a starting position, played professionally in the old CBA and Europe, and then returned to the bottom rungs of Syracuse’s program as a low-level staffer, earning a $16,500 salary and living in a frat house. Within four years he was a full-fledged assistant recruiting and landing the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick, the stars of the 2003 national title team. He was considered one of coaching’s rising stars.
The next part of that story was supposed to be taking the Orange’s reins from longtime coach Jim Boeheim after the 2017-18 season, a succession plan announced by Syracuse in 2015. But two years ago, with the now-74-year-old Boeheim showing little desire to stop coaching, Hopkins instead jumped the opportunity to take over a Pac-12 program across the country. He accepted Washington’s offer without even visiting campus. He wanted the chance to create something of his own.
Before creating, he would have to maintain. The Huskies had struggled mightily in 2016-17, finishing 9-22 even with the eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Markelle Fultz, who was leaving for the pros. But the program was not bereft of talent. Hopkins kept on staff assistant coach Will Conroy, a former Huskies guard who was close with several players, and set about making sure a quartet of juniors-to-be—Crisp, Thybulle, Dominic Green and Noah Dickerson, who had already begun exploring transfer options—did not commence a mass exodus. In a process Hopkins describes as “speed dating,” he contacted each player to sell them on his optimistic (and energetic) vision for the Huskies’ future. One by one, Hopkins won them over.
“I wanted to be part of what he was building,” says Green, a forward. “He just talks with so much confidence. He seems like someone who wants to get stuff done. We wanted to get stuff done too, to go to places we’ve never been before.”
That summer Hopkins also kept the commitment of Nowell, a four-star prospect who had initially pledged to play at Washington for Romar, and lured three-star wing Nahziah Carter—whose lap Hopkins leaped into upon seeing Carter when he visited campus.
Once Hopkins was their coach, they found out his energy was channeled in more directions than fun. They began a routine of 6 a.m. workouts where they might go an hour without even seeing a basketball, working solely on defense and conditioning, trying to match their leader’s zeal. “It’s disgusting,” says Thybulle of Hopkins’s early-morning manner. “I’m like, dude, the sun’s not up. No birds are awake right now. You have no reason to be this happy. And he does it somehow. He’s got a venti coffee in his hands like, Let’s go!” At other times he grew so animated re-enacting a play during film review that he leaped and accidentally damaged the ceiling or, in a recurring theme, break off mid-rant to bang out some push-ups.
However unorthodox the demeanor, it worked. Some Huskies had been reticent to play the full-time 2-3 zone that Hopkins learned under its longtime maestro, Boeheim, thinking the defense soft or a band-aid for inadequacy. But thanks to their coach’s infectious enthusiasm—as well as his long résumé of success over 26 seasons as a player and coach at Syracuse—they bought in.
Dividends weren’t immediate. Washington struggled in its first closed scrimmage, against Boise State, barely beat Division II Saint Martin’s in its first exhibition, and began the 2017-18 season with a 2-2 record. A month into the season, however, came a breakthrough: a nine-point win against No. 2 Kansas in Kansas City. “Then it wasn’t just talk,” says Conroy, the assistant coach. “Here’s the proof: We did it.” The Huskies wound up winning 21 games—more than double the year before—and reaching the NIT. “Something was starting to build,” says Green, “and it was going quicker than a lot of people expected.”
Washington returned nearly everybody from that team for this season, Year 2 of the Hopkins era, and Hopkins has returned all of his vigor. He had players sign a baseball bat signifying the weaponization of their commitment to the team. During a timeout in a tight game, the huddling Huskies looked at their coach’s dry-erase clipboard and saw him drawing a smiley face. One day they entered their locker room to see the floor strewn with mouse traps—reminders from their coach not to “eat the cheese” and grow satisfied with success. He became so obsessed with a Future song from the Creed soundtrack that he would stop mid-conversation in his office to begin playing it. “He’d be like, Have I showed you this song?!” says Thybulle. “Like, yes, you showed me three times already.”
The natural question, obviously, is how someone so irrepressibly expressive celebrates his first NCAA tournament win as a head coach. After all, when Washington clinched the Pac-12’s regular-season title, Hopkins slapped the locker room whiteboard and anything else in sight, unable to contain his excitement. But given his extensive postseason experience, Hopkins knows the weekend’s two-day turnaround allows little room for commemoration.
“He was very calm,” Nowell says of Hopkins’s team address following Friday’s win over Utah State. “He definitely gave us praise for our win, but he made it a point for us to know, we won but we’ve got another game in two days. That really put us back in our business mode.”
Such focus will be needed for the Huskies to extend their season past Sunday, when they meet North Carolina, the Midwest Region’s No. 1 seed and a legitimate national title contender. On the other side of that game is the Sweet 16 and a multi-day break to prepare for Round 3—perhaps a more appropriate occasion for an outburst of unbridled joy.
“When we win, he’s gonna go crazy,” says freshman Jamal Bey, who has evidently already internalized his coach’s positive outlook. “I can’t wait to see that. That’s gonna be the best one for sure.”